Decline in languages steadies

5th December 2008 at 00:00
The downward trend in take-up at 14 begins to bottom out and alternatives to GCSE gain popularity

The number of pupils opting for languages at 14 has begun to level out and there is some evidence that take up may even be set to increase.

The annual language trends survey carried out by Cilt, the national centre for languages, found that only 45 per cent of schools were achieving the Government's benchmark of half of all pupils taking up a language.

French and German classes have been in steep decline since the Government abandoned mandatory language lessons at key stage 4 in 2004.

Teachers blamed the low take-up of recent years on a curriculum that sets languages against many other attractive options and the perception that studying languages is more demanding on pupils than other subjects.

But the Cilt survey, of 659 maintained and 195 independent schools, found that a third had introduced new courses and 41 per cent now offer an accreditation other than GCSE - most commonly the Asset Languages assessment scheme, which allows pupils to be tested on reading, writing, speaking and listening separately.

Kathryn Board, chief executive of Cilt, thinks that the long-term picture is more hopeful.

"We are witnessing a period of rapid transformation in the way that languages are taught, accredited and chosen as options by pupils," she said. "Our survey shows that many schools and teachers are making a huge effort to revitalise their language provision."

Government data published earlier this term showed that 44 per cent of pupils took a language at GCSE this summer, compared with 46 per cent in 2007. These statistics suggest a significant bottoming out of the dramatic drop in language learning, which had been in freefall since 2004, when 68 per cent of pupils took a modern foreign language (MFL) GCSE.

The Cilt survey looked at which languages were taught. Spanish continued to rise in popularity. French was offered in 99 per cent of state schools, followed by Spanish in 75 per cent, and German in 67 per cent.

The survey also found that a class divide remains. While languages are optional after 14 in 78 per cent of state schools, only 18 per cent of independents let pupils drop languages at 14.

Among state schools, those with fewer pupils on free school meals had a higher take up of languages than those in more deprived areas.

While independent schools were under less pressure to change teaching methods, they had shown interest in alternative qualifications, such as the international baccalaureate and the iGCSE.

The report also showed that at key stage 3 - the last point at which languages are compulsory - 18 per cent of schools had dropped one or more languages and a third had reduced lesson time.

In around 10 per cent of schools, the KS3 course had been shortened to two years, and this was seen as making it less likely that pupils would go on to study languages.

One teacher replying to the survey said: "Our Year 8 pupils have to make informed decisions about their future career by taking options in Year 8, when they are 12 years of age. Only 15 out of a cohort of 200 opted for MFL last year."

The Dearing review of languages, which was published last year, stopped short of calling for the return of compulsion, but it did set out a blueprint for making languages more attractive to teenagers. The review's recommendations, which were accepted by ministers, included making languages compulsory in primary schools, introducing more engaging courses in secondaries, and wider use of the Asset Languages scheme.

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